A Commentary on “13 Reasons Why”
After years of television abstinence, I finally broke my fast and binge-watched “13 Reasons Why”. I haven’t binged-watched anything for about 6 years but I felt justified this time. My reason for caving happened both out of the intriguing and controversial views I’ve heard and my own feelings about suicide, shame, and victimizing. As I’m sure is the case for many of you, I was strongly impressed by the series and I’d like to share a few thoughts.
I deeply appreciate a few things I thought the show did well. Props to this series for having the courage to bring shameful topics like suicide, rape, and bullying into the light. Someone needed to start this conversation. Here are a few of the best highlights: “13 Reasons Why” did a great job pointing out the fact we should all be more aware of our behavior toward others. We could always stand to be a little kinder, a little gentler, and a little less judgmental. I also really like the fact that this show cried for empathy toward Hannah, the suicide victim, lessening the judgmental stigma often associated with suicide. I love that the devastating effects of bullying were exposed in a very emotional and tangible way. I think my favorite part of this series was the acute awareness of the “butterfly effect”; we cannot escape the impact we will have on literally everything around us, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
There are a few messages the show conveyed that were less than flawless. I believe the gift this series gave us was the ability to have an open and honest discussion, which is the purpose of this article. Beware, there may be some toe-stepping here, but hear me out.
Multiple times throughout the series, it is implied and even blatantly stated Hannah’s suicide is everyone else’s fault. While I am all for people’s awareness of how their actions contributed to a situation in a negative way, I think 13 Reasons Why takes that message way too far. It is NEVER anyone else’s fault when a person takes their own life.
Here are two reasons why:
SHAME. Psychologists define shame as the intense feeling of being flawed, inadequate, and unworthy of love and belonging. Shame is linked to all sorts of awful things like violence, bullying, addiction, self-harm, and suicide – all of which we witnessed in this series. Sometimes, it is tantalizing to believe that there is some positive use for shame. There isn’t. The research has shown, over and over, that shame results in nothing but more negative behavior. (If you want to learn more about this research, I highly recommend diving into the work of Dr. Brene Brown or Dr. James Gilligan.) Unfortunately, a huge focus of this series seems to be purposefully shaming the characters surrounding Hannah and driving home the message to each character he or she has created irreparable damage, which can never be adequately resolved. The messaging is each of these characters has become a “reason” why Hannah took her life. Hannah’s very intentions seem contradictory, due to the fact her own words are causing harm through blaming (a function of shame) instead of healing and forgiveness. It’s difficult to know if Hannah truly wants others to stop bullying, or if she simply wants revenge through shame.
VICTIM PERMANENCY. The other issue I have with blaming is the idea a victim is forever victimized by another person’s decisions. It is seductive to believe it is helpful and righteous to support a victim through blaming others indefinitely. I can’t participate. It is sexy and acceptable – even demanded – to fault only the people involved in a victim’s story. I understand why. The reason I cannot agree with giving the victimizer all the blame for the outcome of a situation is because of what I learned from my own victim story. The only way I ever healed from my own victim story was to face myself, own my part, and change my own responses. Don’t get me wrong; I am NOT letting any victimizer off the hook for their own shitty behavior. We all stand accountable for our actions. The thing is, the victim doesn’t get let off the hook for their response either. As someone who has been victimized, the most disempowering thing I did for myself was to blame everyone else for my situation. That path led me to resentment, depression, and hopelessness because I was relying on others to solve my problems and make things right. It doesn’t feel good to be at the mercy of someone else to make me feel better. It was my choice to hand over the key to my happiness and healing, or take ownership of my future and the ending to my story. In the end, the only way for me to heal and move forward was to look at myself and realize no one had any power over my feelings, choices, or worthiness – unless I continued to give it to them. As a recovering victim myself, it is so tempting to justify feeling sorry for myself; all that really does however, is keep me stuck. Fault is both/and, not either/or.
Another troubling message the show implied was the division of the victim and the victimizers. Realistically, every single person spends portions of their life as a victim AND as a victimizer. If we are honest, each of us can reflect on times when we have deeply hurt others or have been hurt. No one’s behavior is black or white. Many of the characters in the show were victims of someone else’s actions – not just Hannah. Using Hannah’s logic, wouldn’t Alex’s suicide be her fault? Wouldn’t any of the characters’ suicides be considered someone else’s fault? When do we stop and take ownership of our actions? Comparison and blame only perpetuate the cycle of shame. Judgment and blame help no one. In fact, the more shame a person feels, the more likely they are to behave negatively and shame others. It just doesn’t work. A sobering fact of this story is, as much as Hannah wanted to implicate fault in other people; she alone felt the permanent consequences of her choice. She was the one that forever lost her life.
The majority of buzz about this tv series has been protest of the glorification of suicide. I don’t feel this was the intention of the producer, however the conclusion seems inescapable. I won’t say this is the most dangerous of all of the flaws in the show because the subtle ones can often be the sneakiest and most damaging in the long term however, this flaw is easily the one inflicting an immediate impact on our community and teenagers. This is why the glorification of suicide has been the loudest complaint from parents and critics. The conclusion of the show satiates the recognition and remorse Hannah had hoped for while she was alive. Mostly every one of the “13 reasons” accepted responsibility for Hannah’s suicide in some way and Hannah’s actions were portrayed with sympathy and in a blameless light. This message is obviously attractive to those who are already struggling with the thought of suicide and validates a belief revenge and repentance will follow completion of the act.
Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. The fact is people will always have the choice to choose out if they want to. We, as a society, hate the fact we can’t make people choose to stay and we try to pretend we have that power anyway. We cannot love them enough to force them through their tough times. We can, however, love them unconditionally, remaining unattached to any outcome or any choice they might make. We can love compassionately, without trying to own the responsibility for the result. This and only this, is true love. This is the love we, as a community, school, workplace, and home, need to have the courage to practice on a regular basis. Love reaches past flaws, shame, blame, and fear. True love creates space for the courage to be vulnerable and honest and authentic. Love accepts regardless of imperfections and differences. That is our part. That is how we change ourselves and the world.
If you are reading this and are struggling with your own story of pain, loss, and rejection, please know you are not alone. I’m sorry you have had to face whatever it is that brought you to your knees – I’ve been there too. Please know there is no situation to difficult to be bettered and no unhappiness too great to be lessened. The two most valuable suggestions I can give you are: 1. Reach out to supportive and empathetic people and 2. Keep the focus on your own actions and how you want to create your future. Even though you may not feel it yet, there is an abundance of love all around you ready to be received. The very first person you need love and support from is yourself - so don’t abandon you!
If you are in need of support and empathy, here are a few resource suggestions:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Suicide Support Groups https://attemptsurvivors.com/support-groups/
NAMI Helpline 1-800-950-NAMI (6264)
Alcoholics Anonymous http://www.aa.org/pages/en_US/find-aa-resources
Local church/spiritual resources
Jillian Landis is a Self-Care and Empowerment Coach at Evolve Personal Coaching, blogger, and writer for Nourish + Bloom. Jillian's passion is encouraging individuals to love and care for themselves deeply, so they may serve this world at their greatest potential. Prior to coaching, Jillian served in the mental health profession for 10 years and has a vast knowledge of human behavior, which she utilizes to create effective change in the lives of her clients.